Wednesday, October 26, 2016

PENTECOST XXIV (Proper 26) 2016

Zacchaeus - Niels Larsen Stevns (1913)
The portion of Psalm 119 set for this Sunday contains a half verse that could come from the mouth of Zacchaeus, the central character in the Gospel passage -- "I am small and despised". For the most part, though, it is hard to see much connection between the readings. There is nonetheless quite a deep one.

Zacchaeus is one of the hated  tax gatherers who betrayed their own people, preferring to collaborate with the Roman imperialists in order to enrich themselves. So it is easy to understand why Jesus would be criticized for going to his house. This was no ordinary 'sinner'. Jesus generally does not explain himself to his critics, but on this occasion he offers a partial explanation. - "salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham".

Prophets - John Singer Sargent
By describing Zacchaeus in this way, Jesus reaches far back into the history of Israel, back before the long process by which the detailed prescriptions of 'The Law' (to which the Pharisees faithfully subscribed) had come to dominate Jewish religious observance. Such intense respect for the Law is not to be despised, and Jesus insists on several occasions that he has not come to destroy it. But what Jewish legalism had lost was the visionary zeal of the prophets that gave the Law its life. That is precisely what the opening lesson - 'the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw'  -- reminds us. "Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay".

In these powerful sentences we hear the first sounds of the Advent season, when it will be opportune for Christians to remind themselves that 'there is still a vision that speaks of the end and does not lie'.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

PENTECOST XXIII (Proper 25) 2016

Death and Fire -- Paul Klee (1940)

What lies at the root of all religion, it has long been held, is not a belief about a supernatural world, but an awareness of the character of this one -- its contingency. Nothing about the world in which we find ourselves is guaranteed. When it comes to success and failure, prosperity and deprivation, health and illness, joy and sorrow, all the things that matter most to human beings, we are completely dependent on  time and circumstance. Our best laid political systems and our  most ingenious technologies are highly beneficial, usually, but they cannot give us absolute control -- of life or of death.

Religion starts in this awareness of a world that far exceeds our understanding and control, and prompts a profound awe. But this sense of humanity's awesome vulnerability generates a practical problem. How are we to make ourselves at home in such a world? The great religions, in different ways, offer answers to this question.

House of God - George Stefanescu (2006)
The Judeo-Christian answer runs through all of this week's readings. In even the most radical contingencies of life, the human heart can find security and a resting place in the eternal God who is both ever present and accessible. Thus the prophet Joel declares: "You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel. . .  your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions."., and the Psalmists write "My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God" ."Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts".

In just the same vein Paul writes to Timothy.  "The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so . . .  I was rescued from the lion's mouth". Having "fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith", Paul looks forward to a "crown of righteousness". The brief parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel, however, contains an important word of warning. The greatest spiritual danger human beings face is displacing true righteousness with self-righteousness. Self-righteousness complacently supposes that some mix of material  success and good works will make us secure. But that is precisely to lose the insight in which religion begins; human beings cannot be the means of their own salvation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

PENTECOST XXII (Proper 24) 2016

Jacob Wrestling the Angel -- Leon Bonnat
The common theme in the readings from Genesis, 2 Timothy and Luke that the Lectionary appoints for this week is unusually obvious – persistence. Jacob wrestles with a stranger (traditionally referred to as ‘an angel’) all night long, and even at daybreak will not let him go until he gets a blessing. Paul tells his readers to ‘be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable’ for proclaiming the Gospel. Luke recounts a parable in which Jesus invites his hearers to emulate the persistence of a widow who will not stop petitioning a judge until she gets a judgment in her favor.
The connection is easy to spot. But what lesson should we draw from it?  Do we really have to pester God as the widow does, or wrest a blessing from God as Jacob does? Does God act justly and benevolently only if, and when, we demand that he does? This is what Jesus seems to say. Yet the suggestion sits very badly with the idea of God that most Christians have, and proclaim – a God whose love is ever present and enduring, and who always takes the initiative, reaching out even to those who are hostile or indifferent.
The Widow -- Otto Dix
The same readings can point us in another direction, however. It is a fact that devout and serious people sometimes give up on God, and stop reciting prayers that they have said for years. Moreover, this happens not out of pique or petulance, but because it suddenly seems as though, despite their prayers, neither blessing nor justice is ever forthcoming. This is part of the reality of discipleship. Prayers are no recipe for success.
What is there for Christians to say in such circumstances, except this? We ought to persist in the ways of faith. Persistence, though, amounts to nothing better than beating one’s head against the wall, unless we can continue in the belief that God’s love and justice does not fail. In the face of silence, two things sustains that belief  -- a sense that no other blessing will serve, and the example of Jesus. Christ’s persistence in the face of hatred and social conformity resulted in death on the Cross, but by that very fact showed his love of God to be unshakeable. His persistence was then vindicated by the Resurrection.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

PENTECOST XXI (Proper 23) 2016

Jesus Heals the Ten Lepers (17th cent)
  • Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-12  • 
  • 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111  • 
  • 2 Timothy 2:8-15  • 
  • Luke 17:11-19
    On first reading, the Gospel passage for this week seems to be a relatively simple healing story, with a moral about gratitude. Yet on closer reading the details are a little puzzling. Ten lepers appeal to Jesus. He instructs them to go and show themselves to the priest. They do as he says, and on the way there they find themselves cured. One leper  – a Samaritan --returns to thank Jesus, who asks where the other nine are. He then tells the Samaritan that his faith has made him whole. But where did the other nine go wrong? They did just what Jesus told them to, and they too, the passage says, were made whole? So why was this one specially commended?
    The answer is this. Despite being a Samaritan and therefore an 'outsider' to the faithful, only the man who turned back realized what the miracle revealed -- that the healer stood in a unique relationship to God. The wholeness that this perception brought him, was not merely freedom from leprosy -- which the others gained as well -- but a new, saving and transforming spiritual insight.
    Naaman is cured from leprosy (c.1151)
    The same insight into who Jesus really was lies at the heart of Paul’s extraordinary mission to the Gentile world. The essence of his preaching, brilliantly summarized in this week's Epistle, springs from his conversion on the road to Damascus. Someone who thought Jesus to be the dead leader of a renegade Jewish sect, becomes someone who can see in him the long awaited Christ. "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David -- that is my gospel".“To obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory, the saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;  if we endure, we will also reign with him”.
    The Gospel episode plainly echoes a familiar Old Testament story. Naaman, brilliantly successful Commander of the Aramean armies, is haunted and hindered by leprosy. Thanks to Elisha, he obtains a cure from the God of the Israelites. Yet it is not health, but knowledge that is key to this story.  When Naaman’s ‘flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy’, he, like the Samaritan, ‘returned to the man of God . . . and said,  “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” 
    Jesus made no special demands of the leper who returned, and gave him no special benefits. What marked him out from the rest was his ability to recognize Jesus for who he was. It is a test that many Christians more focused on health benefits and material advantages have found it easy to fail.